Exciting news for No Joe Schmo! Last week, we were featured on the homepage of BlogHer.com as a BlogHer Spotlight. BlogHer is the largest community of women who blog, attracting 25+ million unique visitors per month; its mission is to “bring women bloggers exposure, education, community, and economic empowerment.” Check out the full post here on BlogHer!
In one life, Lisa Mayer and her husband, Sruli Dresdner, dress in all black and play Jewish folk music at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and weddings. In another life, they are Hoot ‘n Annie, an American folk music duo donning red, white, and blue bandanas. And in yet another life, they are the proud parents of 2-½-year-old twins and run a Wacky Instrument Workshop and summer day camp called The Clubhouse Camp in Manhattan.
They live each of these lives simultaneously, if not always harmoniously. The couple is constantly surrounded by a cacophony of 17 instruments, ranging from accordion to washtub cello to musical saw. But all their shows have a warm, living-room feel: “When you come to our concerts, you spend time with us, not just our music,” Lisa says. “We like to schmooze, have fun, and laugh with the audience. We’ve always been in the people business.”
Both Lisa and Sruli threw away their full-time jobs – Lisa as a high-powered advertising executive, Sruli as a corporate lawyer – to start a family band and raise twins in New Jersey. The multi-instrumentalists and vocalists have performed across the world, from New York to Portland to Jerusalem. Now, they stay at Holiday Inns instead of five-star hotels – but, to Lisa, they’re “rich in children and music.”
Graduated from: Queens College, degree in English
Full-time musician for: 14 years
Previous jobs: Associate creative director at Ogilvy
Shows per year: About 125
How did you meet Sruli? Through music. I moved into a new neighborhood, and I heard this guy playing clarinet. I told him that I played violin, and he told me to go get it. And there it was – 15 years later, we have a band and a family.
How did your career in music take off? Sruli and I both loved music and decided to start a little Klezmer band, so we started playing for our synagogue in Scarsdale, NY. The next thing we knew, we started getting calls to play at parties, festivals, and concerts, and then we put a children’s album together.
Do you have children of your own? Sruli and I each had two children from our previous marriages. We formed a family band in the last 15 years and play at weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs all over the country – and the world. Recently, we packed up a big van with our kids, all our equipment, and our dogs, and drove to New Orleans for a concert. Sruli and I also have twins – 2 ½ year-olds – who have already indicated they want to play the violin, trumpet, and banjo.
You also play American folk music. Sruli and I have another life where we call ourselves Hoot ‘n Annie and perform at lots of schools. For those shows, we have an Americana theme; I wear a red, white, and blue boa, and we both wear red bandanas.
Do you come from a musical background? My family goes back to being rabbis and cantors for three generations. Sruli has a scholarly background in Jewish music and also comes from a musical family.
What was behind the decision to leave your corporate job to play music? Sruli and I both wanted to play this type of music together, and ultimately, that’s what pushed us over the edge. Once, I was performing on a float during the Israeli Day Parade, and afterward I had to hustle to Los Angeles to shoot a commercial [for Ogilvy]. It was a seminal moment for me. I said, “I can’t do this; I can’t have it all at the same time.”
Your lifestyle must have changed when you made the transition. Musicians without day jobs have to get good, fast – there is no net. Within the first two weeks of leaving my advertising job, I started playing better.
Combined, how many instruments do you and Sruli play? 17.
Weird instrument scale: It ranges from accordion and drums (which Sruli plays simultaneously during the Hora dance), to the ukulele and washtub cello, to the sheepdog whistle and banjo. Then there’s the cookier stuff, like the musical saw, which is like a bow that you hold between your knees. It’s a little spooky-sounding.
Between all your shows and looking after your twins – how do you stay energized? Lindt dark chocolate with sea salt. For Sruli, it’s those little pigs in a blanket they serve at gigs. [Laughs.] But we also both work out – we have to be in shape for our jobs. And we’re naturally energetic people.
Best advice about working with your husband: You need to put things in boxes and separate work time, romantic time, and family time.
Weirdest thing you’ve seen during a performance: At a very elaborate Bar Mitzvah in Long Island, the kid rode in on a camel while Sruli blew the shofar and I played violin. Then he jumped off the camel into a pool.
Most meaningful compliment: When the family of the Bat Mitzvah says that you’ve made this the best day of their lives. Or after a concert, when someone says that you’ve brought them back to their childhood at their grandma’s house. We frequently get invited out after shows because we schmooze and connect with the audience.
When you’re not working: I lead and teach lots of Jewish dancing.
On your bucket list: Sruli and I want to start a Wacky Instrument Festival in New York. It’s also Sruli’s dream to rent a Winnebago and tour the country with the Hoot ‘n Annie Family Band.
Watch a family jam session:
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Lisa Mayer sounds off about choosing music as a career path.
1. As an artist, constantly watch other performers – attend the opera and go to concerts. But keep your day job; you have to be crazy to do this full-time.
2. Pep yourself up and believe that what you’re doing is important and worthy. To do that, you have to be a little self-stroking. Nobody else is going to do that for you.
3. Don’t choose this career unless it’s the only thing you want to do – or that you can do. It’s a tough job, and you don’t always make it. You must be prepared for a different lifestyle, one where material things aren’t as important. That said, if you’re going to do this, jump in and don’t look back. There’s nothing more thrilling than performing for an audience.
PLUS: For more musical No Joe Schmos, check out the die-hard dancer who keeps Meryl Streep on her toes and the opera singer who compares singing to a hot fudge sundae.
If you wanted to be woken up when September ends, well, that time is coming soon. And that means it’s time for another roundup: a brief look at the most-shared and most popular posts this month. Which was your favorite? Who would you like to see a Q&A with in the future?
> Great Balls of Fire: The Glass Blower // Rene Steinke, Teacher at Rainbow Glass in Sacramento, Calif.
> The Alligator Wrestler // Tim Williams, Dean of Gator Wrestling at Gatorland in Orlando, Fla.
> King of the Jungle // Kevin Bell, CEO and President of Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Ill.
PLUS: Don’t forget to “like” the No Joe Schmo Facebook page for exclusive videos, photos, and scoops on upcoming features!
Eleven years ago, Erik Torbeck locked himself into his apartment in upstate New York to sew hundreds of sheep puppets. He and his brother, Brian, decided to put on puppet shows like The Three Little Pigs – but using sheep instead, since they were an easier pattern. The brothers called it “Operation Make a Million Dollars by Christmas.”
While their plans didn’t exactly pan out, that summer was the beginning of their careers in puppetry. Now, Erik, the eldest of three, belongs to a puppeteering troupe comprised of himself, Brian, and his sister Robin – more commonly known as the Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers.
The trio travels around New England in a large van – with hand-stitched polar fleece pirates, birds, and headless horsemen in tow – and performs hundreds of shows each year at schools, libraries, and churches.
Graduated from: College of the Atlantic, degree in human ecology with a focus on video production
Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers has existed for: 11 years
Based in: Bar Harbor, Maine
Previous jobs: Gave tours around Bar Harbor on a “lobster bike”; held various nightly janitorial jobs
What sparked your interest in puppetry? In college, I took an elective on puppetry because it sounded fun and easy. That got me started – I did a few video projects with puppets as the main characters. Then, when my brother graduated, we started putting on shows together at the Renaissance Fair and other festivals.
Did you create the puppets yourselves? Yes, because I had learned how to sew. We locked ourselves in our apartment in upstate New York and made hundreds of sheep puppets.
Your sister is now also part of your troupe. When my brother took off for the Peace Corps, it just so happened that my sister was available, so I pulled her into doing puppeteering with me. [Editor’s note: Brian Torbeck rejoined the group upon returning from the Peace Corps.]
Are you the oldest? Yes.
So I guess that means they had to do as you said. [Laughs.] We were all interested in the arts even though we didn’t have a background in the arts – so puppeteering was perfect. We hacked our way through it, and were eventually able to quit our janitorial night jobs and do puppet shows full-time.
Where do you draw inspiration for your shows? I grew up with The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, so my main inspiration is Jim Henson and the Muppets. I created many of my puppets by piecing them together from stuff I tore apart, including my brother’s Kermit. He never let me forget that.
Your repertoire includes four regular shows, correct? Yes. We have “Everybody Loves Pirates,” “The Legend of the Banana Kid,” “The Headless Horseman,” and “Tales From the Nest.”
Which is most popular? Probably “Everybody Loves Pirates.” Pirates have had a real resurgence lately.
You mentioned ripping apart other puppets to create yours. Can you elaborate on the process? We originally mainly used felt, but now we’re using polar fleece to trace out big patterns. A stick supports the weight of the body, and extended rods are attached to the neck with a rubber band. Two sticks pull a rope to open the puppet’s mouth so that we don’t have to reach up and open it with our hands.
Do you kneel behind a stage? The stage we most commonly use is 20 feet across and 6 feet high, which is just above our heads. So we stand with our hands above our heads. We enjoy working on our feet – the knees are just too uncomfortable.
Don’t your arms get tired? If you can put your hands down for just a few seconds, you can usually get a few more minutes out of them. [My arms] get most tired when we’re rehearsing.
Do you play the same characters in each show? We actually switch characters during shows. My sister is shorter [than my brother and me], so we gave her Frankenstein shoes to add another three inches in height. If I’m switching characters with her, the character can’t all of a sudden be three inches shorter!
Typically performs at: Schools and libraries in the New England area. We’ve spread out in the last four years: we’ve been to Canada, as far south as Key West, Fla., and as far west as Arizona. We also perform at the National Puppetry Festival every two years, and have done three or four colleges.
Where did the troupe’s name originate? We grew up on a mountain in south-central Pennsylvania called Frogtown Mountain. We didn’t know that growing up, but our friend had a crazy old grandpa who pulled out a map one day and showed us.
Are you working on anything new right now? We’ve been working on a new dinosaur show for about three or four years, piecing it together in our time between other shows. We have about 10 dinosaurs built so far, and it’s a musical. We hope to be done by the end of the year.
Cost per show: If hired to perform at a school or library, we charge $500 per show plus travel costs. We try to keep local shows in Maine affordable, though, at $4 per ticket. Our rate is flexible so we’re not denying people puppet shows.
Wildest audience: In our early days performing at the Renaissance Fair, we did a show in a petting zoo, which was really distracting. The animals were loud and kids were picking up rocks and throwing them, so there were rocks flying backstage.
Most embarrassing moment during a show: I had accidentally bumped my sister’s headset so it covered her eyes. During the show, her microphone slid over her head, and she was reaching out with her tongue, trying to pull it back in. I had trouble getting back in the groove after laughing so hard.
If you could have any superpower in the world, it would be: The ability to control squirrel’s minds. I feel like that could come in handy.
Watch Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers’ Sausage Boy/Susan Boyle parody:
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. Jump right in and put on a show. You can talk about doing something forever, but until you actually do it, you won’t gain momentum.
2. Attend national festivals and look into the Puppeteers of America. It’s a great resource with so many people willing to help, like writing consultants and puppet-making consultants.
3. Go out and see as many puppet shows as you can. You’ll see what’s working and know how it’s being perceived by the audience.
Unless otherwise stated, all photos courtesy of Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers/Robin Erlandsen. Check out more of their work on their YouTube channel.
If nothing else, No Joe Schmo has proven that people find their jobs in the most unexpected places. A cop injured in line of duty was forced to medically retire from police work, so she turned her passion for animals into a nonprofit organization. A successful lawyer tinkered with LEGOs after work as a creative outlet, and eventually left Wall Street to play with bricks full-time. A divorced, burnt-out corporate slicker sang karaoke only to make some extra cash until a DJ told him he’d make a great Elvis impersonator.
Many seemingly odd, entrepreneurial ventures can be great launching pads to personally rewarding careers. I recently came across a book that promotes the same message: 101 Weird Ways to Make Money by Steve Gillman. Gillman points out that “‘normal’ ways to make money suddenly have less competition — and more income potential — once you come at them from a new angle or find a new niche.” He admits that not every niche is a good one; some are bound to leave you financially strapped. Nevertheless, your experience, willingness to take risks, and understanding of what it takes to own a business will give a leg up (well, three legs up, I guess…) in a fiercely competitive market. Plus, most niche-specific jobs are easier to start, as they have more relaxed requirements.
After reading 101 Ways, I realized why unusual jobs and No Joe Schmos are truly so important — besides, of course, being fun to read about. Gillman offers three distinct reasons, which I’ve paraphrased:
1. It’s more fun to make money doing something cool and innovative than sitting at a desk or in an assembly line day after day, week after week, year after year.
2. These “odd jobs” have much less competition, so they provide opportunities to get rich by offering services that nobody else does. Perfect example: The guys that clean eight-story IMAX screens recognized a gap in the screen-cleaning market; now, they receive business internationally.
3. You might find something that you never considered before as a viable career, but it makes you want to get up and go to work every morning.
After more than three months of interviewing No Joe Schmos and hearing their ups, downs, and aha! moments (here’s looking at you, Oprah), I know one thing for certain: I’ll never settle for a career that I don’t love.
Growing up in the Bronx, the first sounds Kevin Bell heard in the morning were not honking cars and alarms, but rather the Tarzan-like screeches of white-cheeked gibbons and barks of sea lions.
To be fair, he didn’t live in the Bronx as most of us imagine it. At age 5, his family moved into a home behind the Reptile House at the Bronx Zoo, where he was surrounded by 252 acres of animals. He helped out his dad, who worked as zoo’s bird curator, and spoke to the giraffes and hippos at night until it was time for bed. He knew immediately that it was his calling.
After completing his Master’s studying the Atlantic Puffin off the coast of Maine, Bell was hired at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Ill., one of the nation’s oldest zoos housing 1,200 animals representing 230 species. Now, 35 years later – as the zoo’s president and CEO – he reveals the challenges of running a nonprofit, why he’s not worried about a Bronx Zoo cobra situation, and how he gauges potential new hires (hint: it’s not resumes).
Title: President and CEO, Lincoln Park Zoo
Graduated from: Syracuse University, degree in biology; State University of New York, Master’s degree
Has worked at the zoo for: 35 years, and 18 years as president/CEO
Previous jobs: Curator of birds at the Lincoln Park Zoo
Visitors per year: 3 to 4 million
You’ve worked at the Lincoln Park Zoo your entire post-college life. I was hired there directly after graduate school. After working as the bird curator for 18 years, I became assistant director of the zoo for six months, and then director. After we privatized the zoo in 1995, my title became president/CEO.
What do you do all day? I oversee the overall direction of the zoo and concentrate a lot on fundraising. This is a free zoo, and doing something good for the public adds a feel-good part to the job. But you need an incredible amount of resources to operate a nonprofit organization.
What background did you have with animals? My father was the bird curator at the Bronx Zoo, and we moved to the zoo grounds – behind the reptile house – when I was 5 years old. Surrounded by 252 acres of animals, I had the zoo to myself in the evenings and early mornings. I spent all my time there until I left for Syracuse.
Did you help out your dad? Yes – I had chores. In the birdhouse, I carefully turned hundreds of eggs a quarter-inch in the incubator. I took care of some of the hatchlings since I was there 24 hours a day – even after the keeper staff went home.
Living at the zoo is many a little kid’s dream. I’d feed the giraffes and hippos and talked to all the animals. I was convinced they knew me; many animals develop relationships with their keepers and recognize familiar faces.
Something people don’t know about your job: That I started out as an animal person, and that I had no administrative or fundraising experience when I took over as president and CEO. I learned on the job.
Most important lesson learned: The impact zoos have, especially in urban areas like New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. So many kids don’t get outside the city – not to mention to Asia or Africa – so their only bond with wildlife is coming to the zoo. Elementary school kids are amazed when they come here and realize where milk comes from, where the food on their tables comes from. It’s a great way for them to see that science can be fun.
Best part of your job: When I get frustrated with personnel issues, I go over and see a giraffe or feed a rhino; they don’t get in bad moods. I also love walking around as a visitor and experiencing the zoo from that side of the equation. I’ll walk up to other visitors and tell them a fun fact that I think they may not know.
Most challenging part of the job: Balancing the budget in a tough economy. Attendance is free, but right now, revenue is way down since people aren’t spending a lot of money inside the zoo.
Responsibilities as bird curator: I traveled a lot as bird curator, doing fieldwork on birds in Central America, Iceland, and Indonesia. It was the best job in the world.
Favorite animal: You might expect it to be a bird, but I love tigers – they’re absolutely magnificent creatures. Unlike lions, tigers are very secretive and elusive; to see one in the wild is an amazing event. I also love great apes and the Himalayan takin, which is kind of like a sheep-goat.
Do you worry about escapes, like the Bronx Zoo’s cobra? You worry more about the visitors that don’t respect fences. With 50,000 visitors in a day, there are bound to be a few unstable people walking through who have had a few beers. That said, if a dangerous snake got out at Lincoln Park, it would be almost impossible for it get into a public space.
How would you describe your management style? Relaxed and informal – people call me by my first name. I’m a bit of a micromanager, but that’s because I’ve gone through the system and understand most of the jobs really well.
Coolest animal at the Lincoln Park Zoo: I try to stay away from favoritism, but the white-cheeked gibbon is pretty cool. It has long arms and fingers and swings between trees, Tarzan-style. They also communicate with a Tarzan holler that carries through the jungle.
Do you live on the grounds of the zoo now? No; I live a few blocks away.
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. A liberal arts education, including some business management and economics classes, is great for people interested in nonprofit management. The key to fundraising is building relationships with people, so that they get to know and trust you – and at the basis of that is being to talk to people about everything from arts to politics. You need that broad background to relate to people.
2. Volunteer for every possible job at a company. As bird curator, I volunteered to do things like budgets and inventory, and not because I had the skills. It ultimately made me a better manager.
3. Get comfortable communicating with others on a large scale. Now, I give speeches to 2,000 people, but when I first took the job as director of the zoo, I was terrified to talk in front of 25 people.
PLUS: Other No Joe Schmos love animals, too. Jenny Litz is saving the Ecuadorian rainforest in $8 rubber rain boots!
Traditionally, food and science and technology don’t exactly go hand-in-hand. But the combination comes naturally for Supriya Varma, the senior scientist at Frito-Lay. Varma uses science and technology on a daily basis to help develop processed food products like southwest enchilada black bean dip.
Many people think the job is “like home ec,” Varma says, which is a misconception. In addition to seeing products through from conception to execution, food scientists are responsible for ensuring that astronauts get the required amount of nutrition in the most compact way possible. (Every gram sent into space costs $10,000!)
After moving to the U.S. from India to complete her Ph.D., Varma pursued a career in food chemistry, a field offering much growth. As she points out, people love to eat – so the industry is very stable. Here, Varma discusses reducing enzyme activity to preserve a product’s shelf life, her views on genetically modified munchies, and her love of plain old Lay’s potato chips.
Graduated from: Rutgers University with a Ph.D.
Has held the position for: 3 years
Previous jobs: Formulated health drinks at GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals Limited in India
In a sentence or two, what do you do all day? I generate ideas for new products, build prototypes, and work with consumer insights to get a sense of what customers want. I’m involved from design to execution of new products.
What products? All different dips. We launched a Southwest Enchilada Black Bean Dip a few years ago, and recently launched a spicy nacho cheese one. We also do single-serve dips to go.
Emerging trends in the food industry: Ethnic flavors and hot, spicy products – like Mexican and Latin flavors. Lots of consumers nowadays like those flavors in the form of snacks and drinks, which is a change from what we’ve seen in the past. Consumers used to be very intimidated by new flavors.
Advances you hope to see in the field: While consumers are experimenting with new flavors, it’s still not in a big way. For example, they want to see all different kinds of ice cream, but in the end, they still lean toward the vanilla or strawberry.
So creating innovative new products is a big risk for sizeable companies like Frito-Lay. Yes. Sometimes, we’ll see products come and go, and it took a huge amount of time and effort to have it hit the market in the first place. But there’s hope; many years ago, people barely knew about sushi, and now you see tons of sushi places across all cities, and even in grocery stores.
True, but much of that sushi is not true to form. That’s another thing that concerns me about the food industry: it’s important that products stick to their true roots and are not diluted too far away. You want to give an authentic experience to consumers.
Misconception you’d like to change: People think all processed food is unhealthy, but it’s not.
How do people respond when you tell them what you do? Some say, “Oh, I was never sure how we were getting tomato ketchup on the shelves.” People in my field are the ones making sure astronauts get the required amount of nutrition in a compact way, since every gram you send to space costs $10,000.
Best part of your job: I get to eat all day, but that’s good and bad. [Laughs.] You’re ahead of trends and get to see products in their entirety, ideas coming to life. It’s very gratifying to go to a store and see something you’ve been working on for the last year.
Something people don’t know about your job: A lot of people think being a food scientist is home ec[onomics] or learning how to cook, but it’s not. It’s looking at food in a scientific way, and making sure the eating experience is the same whether you buy a product at a 7-Eleven on the road or at a large grocery store.
How to you apply science in your job? It helps us understand how the products are impacted over time – in other words, its shelf life. If ingredients have lots of enzymes that can degrade the product, we figure out how to limit the activity of those enzymes. We work very closely with engineers and packaging folks.
Your required reading: Food Chemistry by Owen Fennema. It’s the bible for food chemistry.
Views on genetically modified food: It’s tricky. You want to make sure that the good attributes of food products are maintained and that they don’t have harmful effects. You see things like onions that don’t make you cry and huge cloves of garlic, but it’s important that the overall attributes – flavor, texture, and appearance – remain the same.
Do you have any weird eating habits? I enjoy new cuisines and lots of quick, easy cooking – like frozen veggies, meats, and instant meals. I use them as building blocks and then customize those frozen products. I don’t have time to make elaborate meals.
How have advancements in technology changed your job? We’re now able to store perishable crops without them getting damaged, which in turn makes raw material more readily available. Ingredients that were previously just seasonal are now available throughout the whole year.
Favorite Frito-Lay product: Traditional Lay’s chips.
Dream job in college: I love animals, so probably working as a vet or at a shelter.
Foodie idol: I don’t really have one. I do like The Food Network’s Alton Brown, though. He demystifies our industry and bridges the gap between culinary and food science.
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Supriya Varma offers advice for aspiring food chemists: Put in the time to understand the basic science behind the job; you need to like getting your hands dirty. A science background is highly recommended, if not required, since the job ultimately boils down to chemistry and what’s happening to products as they’re getting processed.